A few years back I was approached by a district level leader to showcase a few new English Language Learners in our district.  The leader wanted something different to capture the essence of the changes in our demographics.  As the supervisor for English Language Programs I was thrilled to see the shift in thinking and the progressive ideas to allow our students to tell their life stories.... that is until he said, "Lets get the boy who picked rocks in Mexico to talk about his life working in the fields."  Immediately, I realized my colleague had completely missed the mark!

Changing Demographics

Over the past 15 years, school districts across the United States have experienced explosive growth in the immigrant population. The increased enrollment has strained the resources of schools—whether they've had experience with English language learners or not. And as school districts struggle to find additional funding and resources to support this diverse group, they also have to contend with the fact that English language learners fall behind in standardized tests and many are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than their peers. Beyond these facts is the idea that our students come in with a wealth of knowledge that far outweighs what a language proficiency score tells us... they each have a story to tell... and from which we as district level leaders, teachers and communities can learn from. 

Eventually, our conversation lead to my colleague going to the young man and asking him to recount his life picking rocks  for our up coming school board meeting.   As the conversation started I could tell that the request did not sit well with the student.  He tried to comprehend really what our district leader wanted him to do.  Once the conversation was nearing its end, our student simply said with conviction,


In that moment I had realized that we had judged his life story on the chapter we walked in on.

Shifting Our Thinking to See the Whole Child

ELL students are a highly heterogeneous and complex group of students with diverse gifts, educational needs, backgrounds, languages and goals. This diversity is an asset. However, the current one-size-fits-all traditional education model is struggling to adapt. ELL students have long been provided with these one-size-fits-all intake practices, educational programs and services, and the results show that we miss understanding what value added assets our students bring to our districts.  We have essentially equated our ELLs to their language proficiency levels.  

Reflecting on our conversation with our new student, it was evident to my colleague that he too had missed the mark.  However, good came from that moment. The conversation taught us we needed to do more as a district.  In the weeks and months that followed we started to think critically about our cultural capacity and the cultural capital we had in all of our students.  Our approach became more holistic, as we moved beyond just looking at hard data and language proficiency levels.  We started to enlist student voice.  We began to open our third eye and adjust our systems to be accountable to the students who provided us with more knowledge then perhaps we could provide them.  

Moving Forward

A key shift for schools to make is working together across the system and with not only with educators to maximize learning opportunities for ELL students, but also with stakeholders that include students and families. English language acquisition should be a coherent part of ELL students’ learning and integrated into academic content courses, but so should showcasing who our students and families are as people.  This requires a much larger shift in thinking than simply teaching English vocabulary in a math or science course. Personalized, is about teaching and learning about the whole child, from academic learning to culturally responsive teaching, to developing student and district skills and dispositions necessary for success in building a system that emphasizes the cultural capital that all of our students bring. 

Last thought:  Advocacy is critical.  What burns in the heart of an educator is the passion that we must have to be certain that we do not allow a child to be judged on a standard that discounts their very being.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | 2018 | 

What About Comprehensible Output?!

I train all teachers and leaders all over the world and focus so much on comprehensible input for our learners...most recently I began to dig deeper into COMPREHENSIBLE OUTPUT...yes, it exists.  So what do you need to know? There are many popular theories about second language acquisition. In this blog we will learn about the comprehensible output hypothesis and research-based strategies to develop ELL students' communication skills.

How Do ELL Students Learn English?

As an ELL educator, you probably wish you had the key to how students learn English. Wouldn't it make teaching English easier? That's one reason why researchers have studied second language acquisition for years.

Scholar Merrill Swain proposed the comprehensible output hypothesis to describe how a second language is acquired. According to the hypothesis, ELL students learn language when they realize there is a gap in their language skills. For example, a student makes a language mistake, becomes aware of the mistake because of feedback, and then tries again. Producing the correct message through trial and error enables the student to modify language appropriately in the future.

Although this hypothesis is only one of many, let's take a look at how it works and how you might apply it to teaching.

Functions of the Hypothesis

The comprehensible output hypothesis has three functions:

  • Noticing function
  • Hypothesis-testing function
  • Metalinguistic function

Noticing Function

The noticing function is when language learners realize there is a gap between what they want to say and what they are able to say. Speakers use this function when they are unable to correctly communicate a message and know they are making a mistake. Imagine Eh Ta Khu and Abdi,  ELL students, are talking about cars. Eh Ta Khu wants to describe a type of car, but realizes he doesn't know where to place the adjective in his sentence.

Hypothesis-testing Function

The hypothesis-testing function describes when the ELL student speaks a sentence to test whether it is correct. If it is incorrect, the other speaker will give feedback by correcting the sentence. Think back to the car conversation. Eh Ta Khu says, 'I want to buy a car blue.' According to the hypothesis-testing function, Laura will fix the mistake by correctly using the phrase 'blue car' in her response.

Metalinguistic Function

Using the metalinguistic function, ELL students reflect on the sentences they produce and the feedback they receive from others. In our example, Eh Ta Khu becomes aware that he made a mistake and what the correct language should be. In the future he will say 'blue car' and not 'car blue.'

Applying the Hypothesis in the Classroom

The comprehensible output hypothesis demonstrates the importance of feedback and interaction for an ELL student. You must give ELL students the opportunity to practice using the language in a variety of settings. In addition to reading and writing about new vocabulary, ELL students should also use vocabulary words when speaking. For example, you could ask the class a higher-order thinking question using the target vocabulary and have students discuss the answer aloud with a partner.

Small groups are great way of getting ELL students interacting with others. Benefits of small groups include allowing the speaker to more easily adapt the message to the needs of the ELL student, and allowing for more frequent check-ins.

Cooperative learning teams are a type of small group that would help ELL students. In cooperative learning teams, students work together to complete a task, which offers plenty of opportunities for communication for every level of ELL student. Beginners can use gestures or short words to communicate while more advanced students can use more complex language. Another benefit to cooperative learning teams is the immediate feedback ELL students receive.

Take Away

The comprehensible output hypothesis argues that language is acquired when a learner becomes aware of gaps in knowledge. It is broken down into three functions: the noticing function, the hypothesis-testing function and the metalinguistic function. You can apply the comprehensible output hypothesis to your teaching by using cooperative learning teams, which give ELL students many opportunities to practice listening and speaking skills.

How Can Wagner Educational Consulting Help Your School or District?  Contact us for Information.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | 

Breaking the Cross Cultural School and Home Divide

Looking for a way to get the parents of your ELL students more involved in the classroom? We often are looking for opportunities to build our cultural capacity, hence becoming cultural brokers.  Bridging the home and school divide is a huge challenge; compound that by cultural barriers and some districts are stuck.  This blog will go over some parental activities and ideas that will be sure to increase parental involvement and engagement!

Importance of Parental Involvement

When it comes to teaching English language learners (ELLs), engagement with parents is an extremely important part of the learning success. Within any classroom, parental involvement is valuable; however, this involvement is imperative for students who must also tackle the extra difficulties that come with acquiring a second language. 

Ideas for Communicating with Parents

The first thing you will need to do is reach out to your ELL parents! Creating that teacher-parent connection is crucial, so make sure you do not procrastinate. You will want to reach out before the first day of class; therefore, use the following ideas to make sure you start this connection off on the right foot!

Learn About Your Students

Prior to the first day of class or as soon as they enter your classroom or district, make sure you learn about your students, including their families, first language, and cultural backgrounds. Demonstrating a genuine interest in their backgrounds can make students and their families feel comfortable when it comes to classroom communication and involvement. Do not make judgments or assumptions about parents' level of interest; rather, use this introductory step as a learning experience for both you and your class.

Set up an Initial Visit

Request a home or special class visit so you can introduce yourself to students and their families. Ask about any academic preferences, family talents, or traditions that may be incorporated into the classroom program. Find out if families are interested in being involved in class or school activities. Complete a volunteer interest survey with parents that you can keep on hand as a reminder of what class activities or school events they may want to help out with.

Ideas for Involving Parents

The following ideas and activities can be used to get parents into the classroom, school, or simply more involved with their children's English language learning. When attempting to encourage parent involvement, always aim to be approachable. You want parents to feel welcomed, not intimidated, when it comes to participating in classroom or school activities.

Bring Parents to the Classroom

Invite parents to visit on a regular basis so that they become familiar and comfortable with you, the classroom, and the school dynamic. To improve shared literacy opportunities and skills development at home, consider inviting parents to come during classroom reading or library time. Parents can take part in centers and read-aloud sessions, while also learning how to assist students with reading strategies, such as close reading, reading for comprehension, text mapping, or story summaries. These activities help parents and students work together so English reading comprehension skills can continue to grow at home.

Encourage Volunteering

Put the information from the volunteer interest survey to good use by encouraging parents to help out in the classroom, in the school office or library if needed, or with school events. You could also provide them with information about joining the school's Parent Teacher Association (PTA). Volunteer activities not only help parents become acquainted with a school and its staff and students, but also can enhance the educational environment and its functions. There's always a need for volunteers, so if you do not require help in your classroom, ask around to see what other opportunities may be available at the school.

Family Game Nights

Whether for the classroom or the whole school, a family game night is always a fun way to involve parents in their children's school life. Consider games such as Win, Lose or Draw; Jeopardy, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, or charades. Allow families and students to showcase and teach games from their culture as well.  Games that encourage parental involvement and make learning fun are a great way to show how well students are doing in the classroom. In addition to showcasing students' progress, family game nights promote an entertaining environment of support that helps take the stress out of learning English.

Parent University

Many schools and districts have successfully involved ELL parents by offering a parent university: English classes right at the school. Teachers, volunteers, district organizers, or community members can offer these classes. Once implemented, they can help parents who may not feel comfortable becoming involved at school because of their English language abilities. Improving English language learning for parents not only opens the door to parent involvement but also improves their abilities to support their children's learning at home.

Information Sessions

Consider holding a community information session to help ELL parents learn about the resources and public services that are available in the surrounding area. Invite members from the community to share information about resources and events that might interest your ELL parents. Consider enlisting help from the local parks and recreation, fire, and police departments; libraries, churches, local services like eye clinics or hair salons that may donate their services at the session, or children's activity centers that offer childcare. An information session not only gives parents a sense of support within the school but also provides a link to the support that can be found in the surrounding community.

Parent Appreciation

Consider celebrating ELL parents and families by hosting occasional appreciation breakfasts, luncheons, or snack times in your classroom or school. Have students create individualized invitations and work on a performance or pieces of artwork to present to family members who attend. And be sure to follow up with personal emails and phone calls. Provide the food and drinks for parents so all they have to do is show up and be honored for the important roles they play in students' lives.

Recognizing how parents have a positive impact on their children's education is a great way to strengthen the school-home connection. It also shows your sincere support and appreciation for their involvement.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting 2018 | 

Whatever It Takes: Advocacy is Imperative

As a teacher or leader of English Language Learners (ELLs), you can often find situations that make you feel like you need to speak on behalf of your students. This blog will discuss the different situations in this lesson and some recommendations so you can play your role as an advocate in a professional manner.

Why Speak on Behalf of ELLs?

Imagine you are teaching a class of English Language Learners and you notice that the materials the school provides for English as a Second Language instruction are not adequate. This makes the struggle of your students even worse. In this kind of situation, you should not be afraid to say something tin education we often where many hats, hence advocacy should be one that is a well defined platform for change.

Advocating on behalf of ELLs for different reasons is imperative. The primary goal to advocate for your students is to ensure their academic success and equitable access to resources essential to their well being. Let's look at some common situations to understand when and how to advocate for our ELLs.

Different Scenarios

You might encounter countless situations in which you'll be called upon to use your advocacy skills. However, before you decide to speak on behalf of your students, make sure you take these basic actions:

  • Identify a legal right or an ethical need ELLs have are not being fulfilled. (i.e. inadequate materials, ELLs in your schools are being segregated, etc.)
  • Identify the person(s) to whom you can speak. (i.e. grade teacher, your school administrator, the Department of Education, etc.)
  • Prepare a few options to propose so that positive change occurs (i.e. you suggest a specialized printing house for materials, you propose a model to include students in regular English classes, etc.)

These steps ensure that your advocacy is reasonable and effective. Now, let's look at the possible scenarios in which advocacy might be required.

Under-prepared Instructors

Very often, school teachers and administrators are not fully prepared to understand the struggle of ELLs. Diplomacy when advocating is key so that other professionals do not feel threatened. The best strategy is informed content to help those under-prepared persons in your school.

To illustrate, let's meet Susie. She is a third grade teacher who has a total of six ELLs in her class. Her ELLs struggle with math and science in particular. Susie knows her ELLs have limited English proficiency and she is not prepared to deal with them because she is a grade-level teacher. Susie's ELL students are lucky because they also have Hoda, a specialized ELL instructor. However, Hoda wants to see progress in her ELLs as soon as possible. When she notices progress does not happen fast enough, Susie begins to suggest to the Literacy Department that her ELLs should be tested for learning disabilities.

Now, let's analyze this case. There is nothing wrong with grade teachers being unprepared to deal with ELLs because even grade teachers who have ELL certifications may feel overwhelmed when working with ELLs. However, teachers can too often suggest learning disabilities in ELLs. In our case, Hoda first talks to Susie. Hoda shows understanding about Susie's frustration and explains to Susie how language lack of proficiency can affect academic progress of ELLs. Hoda also gives some tips and easy strategies for Susie to apply with her ELLs. This way, Hoda advocates for the six ELLs by talking to the grade teacher and by offering solutions to the slow academic progress ELLs make.

Inadequate Policy

Very often, federal, state, or school policy can be inadequate. Remember that policy is issued by human beings and error is a possibility. The good news is that policy is not unchangeable. We only have to keep in mind that policy change requires presenting good arguments in favor of change and following the right steps, which vary depending on each situation. Local authorities usually have the knowledge to guide us through the correct path to follow.

Let's look at this case: Hoda, our ELL instructor, has noticed that the state policy for ELLs is inadequate because it mandates ELL instructors to teach ELL students entirely outside of the regular major classes: science, math, and social sciences. This means that ELL instructors suddenly face the responsibility to teach like grade teachers do for those subjects. The situation is overwhelming for ELL instructors but also for ELL students because they are being segregated from their peers.

Luckily, Hoda knows she is not the only instructor who has concerns on this issue. Other colleagues in her school have her same view, plus she knows a number of colleagues in the school district who want to advocate for a policy change. The instructors find support with their administrators, and there are many among them who know how to prepare a policy memorandum to present to the Department of Education as a first step towards change. Luckily, they will succeed within a short period of time.

Inadequate Materials

Sometimes, schools purchase materials for ELL teaching that do not meet the academic needs of students. This can happen because the quality of the teaching material is not appropriate for the different levels of English proficiency, because the material is outdated, because there is not sufficient quantity of materials, etc. Either way, ELLs have the right to receive appropriate instruction to address their language proficiency issues, and this goal can only be obtained with the right materials.

Let's look at a specific scenario. Hoda notices that the school materials for ELL teaching are not grade-appropriate. She and the other ELL instructors suggest some better printing houses the school can do business with. To suggest this, Hoda evaluates the cost of the new material against the allowance the school district has for ELL materials. This way, Hoda ensures that her proposal is reasonable and feasible.

Other cases

Let's keep in mind that any case, whether it is about the school ELL instruction program or about a single student (such as the case of a student who has been placed in the wrong proficiency level) is a sufficient reason to speak on behalf of ELLs.

Teachers and leaders of English Language Learners advocate for their students in order to ensure their academic success. Before teachers or leaders speaks on behalf of their student(s), it is recommended to do the following:

  • Identify a legal or ethical reason to advocate
  • Identify the person(s) who can help change the situation
  • Propose specific action that leads to positive change

Scenarios that are good reasons for advocacy vary, but the most common include under-prepared instructors, inadequate policy, and inadequate material. Other cases include but are not limited to wrong placement of student(s), lack of sufficient teaching materials, wrong approach to ELL teaching programs, etc.

Food for Thought:  Does you district have appropriate ELL programming?  Perhaps reimagining programming is essential to level up opportunities for all staff and for all students to be receiving equitable and rigorous teaching opportunities.  

How can Wagner Educational Consulting help Facilitate these conversations.  Contact us for details.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | 2018

The Co-Teaching Rodeo

I can attest as a former co-teacher, supervisor and trainer of co-teachers that co-teaching can sometimes be like a rodeo!  Have you ever tried to make the best of the short amount of instructional or planning time you have, just to be thrown from the saddle?  Or have you be trying to co-teach with limited resources, so you can only hold on with one hand? And what about those rodeo clowns (cough cough...ill-structured systems, poor leadership, no planning time, no professional development, or resources!)?  I'm sure these metaphors have resonated with many of the co-teachers out there today. So why do I call it the co-teaching rodeo?  Let's look a bit closer to the aspects of the rodeo and make connections to co-teaching....

Let's start with the types of riding in a rodeo:

Bronc Riding is a rodeo event that involves a rodeo participant riding on a horse (sometimes called a bronc or bronco), that attempts to throw or buck off the rider.  

The co-teaching comparison equates to mismatched or unbalanced partnership.  We often think of parity in co-teaching as equality.  We want to see collaboration happen where both co-teachers have a balance of strengths and assets that reach each and every learner in the classroom.  The mismatch happens when dialogue and clearly defined roles are not established.  Sometimes there is even slight inequity when the locus of control is lost because you share a room, materials, or even some intellectual property.  

The best advice for the BRONC RIDING Co-teacher team is to restart, reevaluate your goals, strengths, and value-added assets that should be used in the co-taught class.  In addition complete or create your roles and responsibilities agreements for both instruction and for tasks related to the partnership.   

Bareback riding is one of the most physically demanding events in rodeo, with a high injury rate. Cowboys ride the bucking horse one-handed and cannot touch or hang onto anything with their free hand. To make the event more difficult for the rider, they are required to lean back and spur in a highly stylized manner that was never historically used in actual practice. 

The co-teaching connection... Sometime bareback co-teaching limits co-teachers to optimizing the benefits for both students and teachers because of limited understanding of what co-teaching can be, the curriculum, and even what the students need.  I often here from co-teacher teams that they are uncertain of the content and scope and sequence.  Specialist teachers feel inadequate especially at the secondary level. Core content teachers may express concern on limited knowledge of specific student need.  Sometimes the lack of exposure or practice limits true instruction and minimizes the partnership to the one teach- one assist model.  Additionally, because of limited time to plan or ill-structured planning time the "highly stylized" [we'll call this differentiation] can't happen...and we know this is what all students need, regardless of their level and/or ability.  Hanging on for dear life is the impact (with high injury for systems, students, and staff) and therefore co-teaching survival mode limits the impact of success!  .  The best advice is to review the Recipe for Success and Sustainability of Co-Teaching...which of these pieces can you use as talking points with your leadership to reduce high co-teaching injury and increase success and sustainability!

BARREL RACING is a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time. It combines the horse’s athletic ability and the horsemanship skills of a rider in order to safely and successfully maneuver a horse through a clover leaf pattern around three barrels placed in a triangle in the center of an arena.

The co-teaching've been co-teaching for awhile, perhaps with the same partner, multiple partners, or always with someone new. Its definitely a balancing act!  In any event the expectation is that in the co-taught classroom you must close the achievement gap in the shortest amount of time possible...compound this by a laundry list of district initiatives and an exhaustive list of barriers including time, resources, support, and/or energy to do all of these things well.  Rest assured its not impossible to create a dynamic co-taught partnership, however, you must be willing to take each co-teachers skills and abilities and marry them to the existing conditions.  Co-teachers must present and bridal a united front in terms of co-planning, co-instruction co-assessment.  With achievement looming and test scores driving instruction its imperative to have joint accountability of outcomes.  The best tips and tricks for this is transparency... consistently looking at data.... summative, formative, and anecdotal. Lastly, be mindful of the needs of your co-teacher....its relational and the more you invest in each other the more you both harness co-teaching ability and skill to maneuver the co-taught classroom more efficiently. 

TEAM ROPING also known as heading and heeling is a rodeo event that features a steer and two mounted riders. The first roper is referred to as the “header,” the person who ropes the front of the steer, usually around the horns, the second is the “heeler,” who ropes the steer by its hind feet.  A successful professional-level team takes between 4 and 12 seconds to stretch the steer, depending on the length of the arena. At lower levels, a team may take longer, particularly if the heeler misses the first throw and has to try again. At higher levels, the header and the heeler are allowed only one throw each, if either misses, the team gets no score.

The co-teaching connection.. at any level co-teaching takes a team.  Both teachers share the successes and the failures.  While you might not be looking to get the "score" you are both trying to attain optimal instruction that impacts in the classroom.  Whether you are the "header' or the "heeler" we know that one cannot exist without the other.  Ahhh....the essence of collaboration and truly a vital piece to co-teaching.  So how do you get there?  Its certainly not an end destination, rather the journey that affords you many  opportunity to build capacity.  I love sharing this self assessment tool in my training to be mindful of what is happening in the co-taught partnership.

Dr.Martina Wagner 2018

Systemic ELD.... How to Move from Add-On Programming to Systemic Implementation

Its interesting the number of times I get asked the question "What is the magic student to teacher ratio for English Language Learner programming?"  The mindset is typically..."If only I can add EL staff to my building; the better our ELLs will perform."  While naturally I agree on adding more specialized staff to a program, its not the only way to reach our multilingual learners.  

The larger conversation in this is building capacity within a infrastructure of teachers. Think systemically to ensure all teachers have the skills and tools they need to work with language development and the best practices possible.  My favorite conversation pieces are those that involve rethinking systems.  I often ask the question "how do you define integrated and dedicated English Language Development [ELD] within your district?"  I have had more questions than answers that result from that prompt.  So what suggestions do I typically make?  Here are a few prompts that get you thinking about restructure to your ELD programming and ones that help teams develop systemic practices to reach culturally and linguistically diverse populations.

  1. What are current and Systemic Processes used throughout programming specific to culturally and linguistically diverse students?
  2. What are Procedures Human Resources enlists to recruit and retain both ELD staff and core content teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students?
  3. What Research Based practices are the expectation of all instruction? 
  4. What is the overall and detailed expectation of ELD Programs in relation to the students that represent English Language Learning population? [Remember language is not one size fits all!]
  5. How does Collaborative Leadership play a role with both EL staff and core content staff?How are collaborations maintained and supported?
  6. How are Fiscal Resources being returned to the population that generates them?  How are creative resources being shared throughout a district to build capacity?
  7. What are the efforts and systems in place for Family and Community Partnering?  Are they effective? (Parent/Community Involvement)
  8. What is the process for Ongoing Evaluation of ELD Program?  Beyond the program, how are core content and ELD staff evaluated on working with ELs? 
  9. Have silos been broken between departments within a district? Are Teaching and Learning Organizational Culture and student programs working in tandem?

Naturally, there are many more in depth pieces that go into quality programming.  It takes a systems of stakeholders to create a dynamic setting for each and every learner.  Consider what steps and refinements your system needs to be successful.  

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting |